BYron Smith was standing outside his house when the Tampa police officer put the handcuffs on his wrists. “What is this about?” Smith asked nervously, standing in the early afternoon Florida summer heat.
Minutes later, he was in the back of a police car, still trying to figure out why he was arrested, body camera footage obtained by the Guardian. “Did you vote?” the officer asked him. “Not this time, no,” replied Smith, 65. “They took that away from me right away.” The officer then told him that a $1,000 bail had been set for him. “What’s the charge?” asked Smith. “It was for something about false voting and something else,” the officer said.
Smith had reason to be confused.
He registered to vote on January 14, 2019, just days after a well-publicized Florida constitutional amendment, Amendment 4, went into effect, restoring voting rights for those with felony convictions. People convicted of murder and sex crimes were barred from the amendment, but at the time lawmakers were still figuring out which specific crimes would cause someone to permanently lose their right to vote. When they got on a list months later, they knew there would be some confusion, so they included a grace period saying that anyone, like Smith, with a felony conviction that registered in the first six months of 2019 could not be prosecuted. for illegal registration.
Local election officials approved Smith’s registration the same day he registered, and the following fall he voted in the 2020 election. It wasn’t until February of this year that election officials sent him a message saying he was ineligible. to vote, according to Gerri Kramer, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County election supervisor. Smith’s 1993 conviction for possession of child abuse footage, a sex offense that made him ineligible to vote in Florida.
Hours after Smith sat in the back of the police car on Aug. 18, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis held a news conference in a courtroom across the state in Broward County. Flanked by uniformed law enforcement officers, DeSantis announced that the state is prosecuting 19 people, including Smith, for voter fraud. All had previously been convicted of murder or a sex crime and had voted in the 2020 election.
Smith was taken to the local jail in Tampa, where he was arrested and released after making bail. He was charged with knowingly illegally voting in the 2020 election, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Court documents checked by the Guardian revealed that many of those arrested were confused about their eligibility and believed they could vote. Smith, like all the other defendants, filled out a voter registration form and received a voter registration card before voting. Florida authorities have not yet provided evidence that any of the persecuted were warned not to vote.
“How many of these people tried to commit voter fraud voluntarily? I don’t think any of them did. I don’t think there was any malicious intent by probably any of the 20,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican senator who played a key role in drafting legislation to implement Amendment 4.
“They were asked if they wanted to register to vote, maybe they asked some follow-up questions, they had read in the media that ‘hey, criminals just restored their voting rights. So they voted. They have registered to vote,” he said.
Smith did not return a voicemail message. Jonah Dickstein, a lawyer representing him, said his client did not deliberately vote illegally.
“He voted all the way out, openly about it. There’s nothing secretive about the way he handled it. He went in because he wanted to vote. He wants to be reintegrated into society. He went to the registrar because he wanted to sign up, and they let him sign up.
Smith’s case illustrates why there are growing questions about the 19 prosecutions, the first DeSantis announced under a new statewide bureau charged with prosecuting voter fraud. State officials have taken years to identify non-voters on the list and now voters are being punished for it.
“Honestly, they’ve done everything right. They turned it in, the supervisor sent it in, the state didn’t check it,” Brandes said. “Slightly shocking, we’re going to wait three years and go through a few different cycles before this person is flagged and told they can’t vote. If you can’t trust the Secretary of State, who is the top election official for the state of Florida, who can you trust?”
DeSantis defended the prosecutions this week, saying the indicted individuals had incorrectly checked a box on the voter registration form to indicate that their voting rights had been restored.
“People sign up and they check a box that they qualify, so if they don’t qualify and lie, of course they can be held accountable,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “Obviously this is a very, very easy provision of our law to know that someone should not register or do this if they have those very serious convictions.”
Mark Ard, a spokesman for the Florida Secretary of State’s office, declined to explain why it took so long to assess the suitability of Smith and other indicted individuals.
“These individuals lied when they registered to vote. They were never eligible and there is no confusion about that. We are confident that when all the facts and evidence come to light through the legal process, the reasons why these individuals were arrested will be clear,” he said in a statement.
Brandes, the state senator, said checking a box on a voter registration form was not enough to prove fraud.
“That is not intentional. It just proves that they filled out a piece of paper. It doesn’t prove they intended to commit fraud or intentionally commit voter fraud,” he said.
The Guardian reviewed Smith’s voter registration form and the voter registration applications of nearly all of the accused. None contain an explicit warning that people convicted of murder or sex crimes cannot vote in Florida.
Smith and Peter Washington, an Orlando man, are also the only two defendants among the 19 to register during the Amendment 4 grace period. Both are only being prosecuted for illegal voting, not registering.
In the summer of 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit also appeared to offer some legal protections to people confused about their eligibility to vote. At the time, 85,000 people with felony convictions had registered to vote after Amendment 4 went into effect, but state officials had yet to assess their eligibility.
A majority of judges on the 11th Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the US, said that until Florida told someone they were ineligible because of a felony, they “had the right to vote.”